From The Snake Pit: Tommy Johnson Jr. VISTA, Calif. (Feb. 24, 2004) -- Tommy Johnson Jr. recently began his fourth season in the cockpit of the Don Prudhomme-owned blue Skoal Racing Chevy Funny Car. The Iowa native has raced to wins in...
From The Snake Pit: Tommy Johnson Jr.
VISTA, Calif. (Feb. 24, 2004) -- Tommy Johnson Jr. recently began his fourth season in the cockpit of the Don Prudhomme-owned blue Skoal Racing Chevy Funny Car. The Iowa native has raced to wins in three NHRA categories and has earned five career victories as a professional driver. The Indianapolis resident is one of 13 drivers -- along with Prudhomme and fellow Skoal Racing Funny Car driver Ron Capps -- to have earned victories in both nitromethane-powered categories. In this Q&A, the newlywed Johnson discusses his first three seasons with Don Prudhomme Racing, what it is like driving for a drag racing icon and his desire to win.
Q: Are you surprised you're beginning your fourth season with Don Prudhomme Racing?
JOHNSON JR.: It has gone faster than I thought. It doesn't seem like four years already. It seems like one big, long year, not four.
Q: How have the first three seasons of driving for the Snake gone?
JOHNSON JR.: On many levels great and on some not so good. The opportunity to drive a race car is great. We have the best equipment and teams at your disposal. I couldn't think of a better sponsor than Skoal. They are a great group of people. They've made the experience wonderful. I've been drag racing for years, but the past three years I've got to learn the business side of the sport as well. On the negative side, we haven't had the results we've expected. The nice thing is that Snake is the kind of competitor that allows you to work and get better. He expects you to win and we expect to win. So, the two of those should come together sooner or later.
Q: You're a second generation racer. Growing up, did you ever imagine you'd be driving for Don Prudhomme?
JOHNSON JR.: When I got the job, my parents were looking through some old pictures and found a photo of me when I was pretty young standing next to one of Snake's Funny Cars. I can remember watching him race all through the years and he would come to the local track for a match race. I never thought about driving for Snake. I raced against him a few times in Top Fuel. This is something I've always wanted to do ever since I was a little kid. I've always had my sights set on drag racing. I had no intentions of doing anything else and to race for Snake is the ultimate. When you think of drag racing, it's Don Prudhomme and Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney, and if you get to drive for one of them, that's about as good as it is.
Q: You are one of 13 drivers to have earned victories in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. Are you proud of that accomplishment?
JOHNSON JR.: When you start looking back at records, a lot of people win races. You start looking back at your stats and to win in both categories is pretty neat. (Gary) Scelzi is the only guy to win in four categories. I've won in three of those four categories. I doubt I'll go back and drive in Top Alcohol dragster just to get that record, but it's pretty cool to have won in both categories and to be one of those 13 guys. Ron (Capps) has done it, Snake has done it. It's a very small group of racers. I'm in the Four Second Club and the 300-mph Club. There are only five of us that are in both of those clubs. It's those kinds of stats that you look back on and are proud of.
Q: What changes did the team make to the Skoal Racing Funny Cars for the 2004 season?
JOHNSON JR.: We've made a lot of changes for 2004. We spent the last half of the 2003 season testing things for this year. We changed the cylinder heads and intake manifolds, we put the setback blower on the car and made some small changes to the clutch setup. The new body posted some really good numbers in the wind tunnel, so that should be an upgrade. It isn't like we were a mile off, we were just a little off. Hopefully the changes will help us pick up five-hundredths (of-a-second) or so and then we should be in the hunt. It's a tough game and takes a lot of money, experimenting and testing to make these things run quicker and quicker every week. You change things every day, not just over the winter. You're constantly changing stuff to get ahead.
Q: As a driver, have you had to adapt to the setback blower?
JOHNSON JR.: I about had a heart attack when I saw it at the Indy shop for the first time. I couldn't believe how close the blower was to me. As soon as we hit the track it wasn't a problem. I really haven't noticed a difference. It was a little harder getting into the car, that's about it. When the car fires and you put the body down, you can't see the blower. I'll hold the thing if it will make the car run better.
Q: It's been nearly three seasons since you've won a race (April 2001, Las Vegas). How hungry are you to taste victory again?
JOHNSON JR.: That's the incomplete part of driving for Snake. We need more wins. We had some runners-up the past few seasons and a couple of those I screwed up in the final round. I need to dig deeper and win these things. A couple of the finals, our performance was off and we were just flat outrun. This is a very competitive team and should be in more finals and win more races. I want to add to my total and I want to add to the team's total. There are some guys on the team that have never won a race. I want to win for those guys because they work so hard. And, of course, you want to win for the sponsor. If it wasn't for Skoal, I wouldn't have a job. My desire to win for them is awfully high. They've never won a championship and I'd like to win one for them. You start winning races and the rest falls into place.
Q: You and fellow Skoal Racing driver Ron Capps finished in ninth and eighth place, respectively, last season. How frustrating was the 2003 season for you?
JOHNSON JR.: It was a little embarrassing actually. It was very frustrating at times. We ran pretty decent in the beginning and things went south through the summer. I don't know what happened. I think we lost focus there for a while. It wears on a drivers confidence. You get the attitude that you have to work on getting that killer instinct on Sundays instead of going to the starting line knowing you're going to win. It becomes a lot of work trying to build yourself up. It gets to you. I want to be able to go out there with the confidence that my car can win every time I go to the starting line. Eight and nine is unacceptable. With the resources and the support we have and our desire to win, that's just unacceptable.
Q: What is your outlook for 2004?
JOHNSON JR.: Snake's focus is really on the Funny Cars. He wants to make them competitive and to see them win. Not only win, but to be competitive. Not be in the bottom half of the field during qualifying, that's not acceptable. It makes your confidence level go up when you've got that kind of support. I'm going to do my best to win. If everyone is putting there best foot forward, then so am I. I'm optimistic that we'll get that done. General Motors has added a lot to that. At times you felt like you were racing with one arm tied behind your back because you were at a disadvantage aerodynamically. Now, we're on a level playing field. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't win races. If everybody stays focused on the same goal and works hard at it, those results will come.
Q: Are you excited to be a part of Prudhomme's 100th victory?
JOHNSON JR.: That's pretty cool. I was part of (John) Force's 100th win in the other lane, so I'd like to give Snake his 100th win. It's pretty neat that someone could win 100 races in a career as an owner and driver. The sport of drag racing is changing. It used to be all owner/drivers out here and Snake was one of the first to be an owner after he retired from driving, and now he has three cars out here. It's great to see that our sport can survive beyond its original founders and that young guys can come out and get the opportunity to race. I want to help get that 100th win and add to his total and my total and keep this thing going.